The Daily Californian’s Arts Awards: Music of 2021

Photo of BTS
Big Hit Music/Courtesy

Best Pop Album

Photo of Olivia Rodrigo album

Courtesy: Geffen Records

Winner: SOUR, Olivia Rodrigo

With her debut album SOUR, Olivia Rodrigo redefined the boundaries of success for a new artist — an achievement that alone already earns the LP the title of pop album of the year. Although some of the biggest hits of the year hail from SOUR, the album’s significance extends far beyond its singles.

On SOUR, Rodrigo takes listeners on a roller coaster through the full emotional spectrum of romance. From the breathless highs to the darkest lows all the way through cathartic triumphs to the deepest betrayals, Rodrigo beautifully and effortlessly captures the feelings of teenage love and heartbreak. Her captivating lyrical storytelling and infectious melodies join the ranks of the biggest pop stars working today, while providing a new generational perspective that brings a much-needed rejuvenation to an ever-adapting genre.

SOUR has carried us through 2021 — the first single, “Drivers License,” was released Jan. 8, and the album’s tracks continue to grace the charts today, proving once again that Rodrigo has been there with us for every step of the year. Breaking numerous streaming records and earning her seven Grammy Award nominations, including Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album, Rodrigo’s debut has secured the artist’s well-deserved place in the music industry spotlight. We can only hope that Rodrigo continues to take steps forward with her career.

— Connor Lin

Runner-up: Montero, Lil Nas X

Ever since the chart dominance of “Old Town Road” in 2019, Lil Nas X has maintained a grip on the cultural consciousness, going viral with almost every move he makes. He has cemented himself as the epitome of the current day celebrity: young, witty, up to date and unapologetically himself. In his debut album, Lil Nas X blends hip-hop, melodic pop and even punk influences to create Montero — an exploration of the young rapper’s perspective on success, controversy, family and the legacy he hopes to leave behind. 

Titled after his birth name, the record is an apt glimpse into Lil Nas X’s mind, flowing like a stream of consciousness. “Never forget me,” he sings over synthesized violins in the final track, “Am I Dreaming”— his wish already granted. If this album is any indication, Lil Nas X is here to stay.

— Afton Okwu

Best Alternative Album

Photo of Japanese Breakfast album

Courtesy: Dead Oceans

Winner: Jubilee, Japanese Breakfast

This year, indie-alt-rock band Japanese Breakfast is on a roll. Its third album, Jubilee, is the golden, sunsoaked, joyful love child of frontwoman Michelle Zauner, husband and guitarist Peter Bradley, drummer and producer Craig Hendrix and bassist Deven Craige. Jubilee hits a million different tempos and subgenres, from the saxophone-infused ‘80s groove of “Slide Tackle” to the resounding march of “Paprika” to the soul-lifting strings of “Tactics.” It’s the band’s own musical wonderland, the sound of joy drawn from a colorful musical palette which lights up like fireworks.

Zauner’s light, lilting, lo-fi voice soars and skates across tracks, bolstering the cohesion of the album. Her control and power is beyond uniquely complemented by the aforementioned arrangements and overall production; they effortlessly hinge on her delicate, sweet vocals from another planet, which swings easily between reeking of romance and blooming of barren loneliness. 

The genius of Jubilee is in its little moments: the whisper-yelled “be sweet” repeated in the chorus of the second track; the techno-alt-rock fiction of “Savage Good Boy”; the indie rock ballad of “Posing for Cars” that makes every listener’s whole body rock. Allow yourself to hang onto and get lost with Zauner’s voice, carried away by the layered, one-of-a-kind instrumentals and plopped into the exact emotional state Japanese Breakfast wants you in. In a time of global strife, Jubilee brings jubilant revelations about love, growth and transcendence — an album unlike many others.

— Katherine Shok

Runner-up: Sling, Clairo

Just four years ago, it would be safe to assume that the then-rising star Clairo would go on to make TikTok-friendly bedroom pop well into the future. Hot on the heels of viral hits such as “Pretty Girl” and “Flaming Hot Cheetos,” the artist’s sound was charming and of-the-moment, capturing adolescent angst at its most lighthearted.

Fast forward to this year, Clairo’s sophomore LP Sling is nearly unrecognizable in comparison to those early works. The record sounds like a time capsule straight out of the ’70s, but imbued with the worn weariness of a woman battered by the pressures of a 21st-century world.

Clairo’s latest is daring in its calm and quiet, its subtle beauties equating to the tranquility experienced by contemplation in nature. Sling is a mature musical statement from an artist propelled into the spotlight at such a young age; for those who like their alternative pop slightly left-of-center, its poetics and dreaminess make the album one of the year’s finest.

— Vincent Tran

Best Rock Album

Photo of Daddy's Home record

Courtesy: Loma Vista Recordings

Winner: Daddy’s Home, St. Vincent

Daddy’s Home, the newest record from St. Vincent (Annie Clark), is best summed up by the opening line of the record’s title track: “I signed autographs in visitation rooms.” 

Released nearly four years after the renowned, electro-glam-rock Masseduction, the new album bears production that trades its predecessor’s harsh synths and vapid lyricism for psychedelic guitar riffs and lines about unapologetically imperfect people. Written on the heels of her father’s release from prison, the record never shies away from the grit and grime paired with the lives of those who are incarcerated, broken or simply down and out downtown.

Pulling heavy inspiration from the iconic rock bands of the ‘70s — AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Who, the list goes on — the album holds a little something for each and every listener. Bound to please your Gen X father all the way down to your average TikTok tween, Clark proves herself ubiquitous through her awe-inspiring guitar playing, songwriting skills and ability to flawlessly capture her unique artistic vision.

Incredibly introspective, the LP is by no means a “happy” listen, but an entertaining one nonetheless. Clark seems to only get better with time, and her latest album is certainly not an exception. Her best album yet, the musician’s future shines brightly as she leaves audiences to marinate in the impressive storytelling of Daddy’s Home and to anticipate her next project.

— Ian Fredrickson

Runner-up: Valentine, Snail Mail

Following her critically acclaimed 2018 debut Lush, Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan was faced with a mountain of expectations. Her sophomore LP, a dose of searing lovelorn indie rock titled Valentine, is a worthy follow-up which more than rises to the occasion. The album explores the extreme emotions of love and the pain and exhaustion it can bring its victims with brutal honesty, navigating jealousy, yearning, loss and everything in between. 

Each track is meticulously crafted with dynamism: Jordan knows exactly when to explode and when to pull back. Pop sensibilities lend irresistible catchiness to several tracks; Jordan makes it practically impossible for listeners to avoid cathartically screaming along to “So why’d you wanna erase me?” in the titular “Valentine,” which is just one of many highlights in this confessional, yet highly intentional project that subverts genre and shows Jordan’s promising evolution as an artist.

— Sarena Kuhn

Best Hip-Hop/Rap Album

photo of Doja Cat album cover

Courtesy: RCA Records

Winner: Planet Her, Doja Cat

On Planet Her, Doja Cat embodies the divine feminine with ethereal beats and bubblegum pop from another world. Hits such as “Ain’t Shit” and “Need to Know” reached viral TikTok fame, while the slower, R&B-influenced “Love to Dream” and “Alone” form the heart of the album. She even infuses disco beats into “Kiss Me More,” the exquisite collaboration with soul singer SZA. 

Though some might argue her music fits best into the genre of pop, at her core, Doja is a rapper. Nonchalant and carefree, her raspy voice seems effortless when it’s really anything but. Though she’s moved on from the meme-worthy nonsense of “Mooo!,” her witty lyricism and wordplay remains unparalleled — “Left on read and can’t give head/ Really, you ain’t shit, need a laxative,” she sings slyly. Brevity and versatility have always been Doja’s strengths, but she perfects the formula in Planet Her, her third and best studio album to date.

From the Afrobeat anthem “Woman” to the emotional penultimate track “Alone,” the rapper takes us on a journey through space, time and womanhood. She even pays homage to other female hip-hop artists, interpolating the flow from Nicki Minaj’s “Massive Attack” in “Get Into It (Yuh)” and referencing Rihanna with her quip “I could be the CEO, just look at Robyn Fenty” in “Woman.” All in all, Doja Cat proves that it’s her planet, and we’re just living on it.

— Asha Pruitt

Runner-up: DONDA, Kanye West

True to reputation, the release of a Kanye West album remains an event. DONDA, the rapper-producer’s latest LP in the Sunday Service phase of his music career, is his most solid work since that legendary run of albums at the turn of last decade.

Like other landmark Kanye releases, DONDA — which underwent many phases of edits that included a publicly live-streamed residency at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium — thrives off of the artist’s ability to produce compelling results from spontaneous collaboration. It’s filled with some of hip-hop’s finest moments this year, from exhilarating dual versions of “Junya,” “Jesus Lord” and “Jail” to the magnificent, uplifting bounce of “Pure Souls.”

In this age of Kanye, it’s a thrill to see the artist come through with a project filled with broad creative range and plenty of risks which pays off in ample supply. Considering this is the Ye who, not too long ago, released a string of some of the worst music he’s ever made (“I Love It,” “Nah Nah Nah”), DONDA feels like a blessing. That it would end up being one of the year’s best? Truly a miracle.

 — Vincent Tran

Best Indie/Folk Album

photo of the album Star Crossed

Courtesy: Interscope Records

Winner: Star-Crossed, Kacey Musgraves

America’s weed-smoking country pop princess Kacey Musgraves delivers an enthralling tale of heartbreaking, divorcee vengeance with her newest album Star-crossed. In her fourth album, Musgraves takes the listener through heavy stages of relational grief tangled in hypnotic melodies and vocals.

Star-crossed thrills as Musgraves’ personal fairy tale story that beholds a narrative different from her former works; it opposes the traditional riding-into-the-sunset ending and alternatively, has the singer discovering personal peace. The album is Musgraves’ strongest work by far, usurping the success of “Slow Burn” — which was thought by fans to be impossible — through freeing tracks of girlbossing painful feelings into powerful manifestations for the future.

Musgraves finetunes her unique mixture of acoustic slow jams with catchy choruses and lyrics on tracks such as “simple times” or “breadwinner.” For an album that describes a life-altering decision, Musgraves refuses to indulge in herself, choosing instead to speak to and connect with her listeners. It’s truly pure, relatable fun that has its audience wanting to dance and cry, a paradox that Musgraves knows how to harbor best. In short, Star-crossed is a beautiful, multidimensional artwork that powerfully shapes Musgraves’ discography — and will be difficult to top.

— Kaitlin Clapinski

Runner-up: I Know I’m Funny Haha, Faye Webster

For an indie rock record, Faye Webster’s I Know I’m Funny Haha is deceptively cavernous, accessing emotional depth only glimpsed by many of her contemporaries. It’s a profoundly sad album filled with moments of sunlight laboriously etched between — a melancholic cake frosted over with a tear-stained buttercream. Webster’s songwriting is distinctive in that it is broached with wry detachment and self-awareness. The record’s title is a nod to this, the “haha” tacked on to the end emphasizing its emotionally intelligent ethos. On I Know I’m Funny Haha, Webster spins her wheels, generating compelling artistry from her signature treacly cadence and mellowed-out instrumentation. 

— Emma Murphree

Best International Album

Photo of Mdou Moctar album cover

Courtesy: Matador Records

Winner: Afrique Victime, Mdou Moctar

In case you didn’t know, Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar is the real deal. The Saharan rocker’s latest LP Afrique Victime is the artist’s most polished record to date — an electrifying showcase of one of the world’s greatest guitar virtuosos in sync with his band, resulting in some of the most astonishing psychedelic rock out there today.

From Hendrix-inspired jams spiraling inside their own rhythms (see the title track) to buoyant, romantic numbers that grow sweeter with each listen (“Ya Habibti”), Moctar’s album breaks free from traditional Western melodies, infusing his band’s more psychedelic sensibilities with traditional sonic palettes of Nigerian rock.

But that’s not all: Afrique Victime is oftentimes a political statement, and a rebellious one too. Across the album, Moctar rebels against imperialism and corrupt political states, with roaring guitars revving up around him. It’s already clear from the album’s opening salvo of “Chesmiten” and “Taliat” what makes his music so special; the anthemic chanting of the band’s communal vocals are answered by a soaring lead guitar, which sounds as if it’s coming down from the heavens.

At their core, all these songs are beacons of hope, serving as active calls for change in aiding the people of Niger and those around the world suffering. Afrique Victime isn’t just the clear standout international album of the year, and Moctar’s music isn’t just fiery, supercharged protest music of the highest caliber: It sounds like the winds of change before your very ears.

— Vincent Tran

Runner-up: Before I Die, Park Hye Jin

Park Hye Jin is the international breakout artist we never knew we needed. On her debut album Before I Die, the South Korean DJ-producer reveals an honest, transparent stream of her emotions through transportive, minimal house production. After relocating from Seoul to Los Angeles, the artist collected bits and pieces of her musical influences and inspirations, expanding by adding trap, techno and ambient sounds into her wheelhouse. Across the album, Park seamlessly blends Korean and English lyrics, a testament to her mixed life experiences in all the places she’s graced.

Before I Die stands as the first impressive full-length piece of music from Park, full of standout electronic music that spans feelings of love, lust and yearning (“I Need You,” “Let’s Sing Let’s Dance,””Sex With Me (DEFG)”). With this debut along with a stellar string of EPs already under her belt, the artist has nowhere to go from here but up.

— Ashley Tsai

Best Billboard Hot 100 Single

Album Cover Art

Courtesy: Columbia Records

Winner: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Lil Nas X

Two years after the country-trap hybrid “Old Town Road” topped the Billboard charts for a record-breaking 19 weeks, Lil Nas X climbed to the top again with the release of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” An upbeat trap tempo with syncopated handclaps spices up the song’s flamenco style, creating a catchy blend that incessantly sticks in your head.

Named after the 2017 film, “Call Me By Your Name,” featuring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, Lil Nas X utilizes lots of symbolism in this track. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” alludes to the pressure the artist feels as a spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community in his work since coming out as gay in June 2019. Many lyrics were inspired by his own love life, with the refrain “You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend,” referencing a man that he fell in love with who refused to come out.

The song and its music video provoked backlash from religious groups and conservative figures who deemed it immoral and harmful to children. However, the queer themes and the vulnerability that Lil Nas X displays in this track are what touches audiences and have contributed to its resounding success. That’s not to mention his iconic performances of the song, including one on Saturday Night Live that he finished strongly despite an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction. For good reasons, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” has left its mark on the world in astounding ways.

Beatrice Aronson

Runner-up: “Drivers License,” Olivia Rodrigo

If you’ve been anywhere with internet access this year, then it’s more than likely that you’ve heard “Drivers License,” the viral breakup song of the year. The single by Olivia Rodrigo has topped charts left and right and has continued to do so even this deep into the year. Co-written with Dan Nigro, Rodrigo’s debut single explores the rollercoaster of emotions she experienced when reminiscing about her past love as she sings over gently pulsing piano and gradually crescendoing drums.

Rodrigo, already an extremely gifted singer, has had a remarkable hold over the pop-scene in 2021. On top of first-class vocal chops, her music reflects teenage vulnerability with openhearted sincerity turned cinematic. “Drivers License” is just about the purest distillation of the artist’s appeal, its heartbreak potent enough to reduce just about anyone who’s been in love or behind a steering wheel to tears.

— Erica Jean

Song of the Year

Photo of Kiss Me More album cover

Courtesy: RCA Records

Winner: “Kiss Me More,” Doja Cat and SZA

If Doja Cat is an expert on anything, it’s lasting power. It would be a struggle to find a song within her discography that didn’t start some sort of new trend or viral dance, and her single “Kiss Me More” — featuring R&B sensation SZA — is no exception to the rule. Released in April of this year, the disco-esque bubblegum pop song is an ode to kisses, smooches and smackaroos with a summer feel.

Defined by a groovy bassline and infectious beat, Doja’s ever-flexible tone finds a home in the unapologetic softness of the track’s lyrics, a surprising but welcome shift for the often solely raunchy artist. Paired with SZA’s sultry flow and her frequently unintelligible yet dreamy delivery, the single is a perfectly produced bop that was almost guaranteed to become the earworm of 2021. Even the singular triangle “ding!” in the bridge has reached icon status.

The song is sultry, tender, sunkissed and absolutely everything the world needed after a year spent indoors. With three Grammy nominations and a record-breaking run on the U.S. charts, “Kiss Me More” is nothing if not a delight.

— Afton Okwu

Runner-up: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” Taylor Swift 

Taylor Swift’s intimate 10-minute version of “All Too Well” topped the charts, standing out for far more reasons than just its length. The multitalented singer-songwriter’s magnificent storytelling skills shine through as she reflects and relives a painful past relationship once more. The newest version off of the recently re-recorded Red (Taylor’s Version) adds in Swift’s wiser perspective looking back, finding success due to her willingness to share raw emotion and unfiltered woe with her dedicated listeners more than ten years later.

The exquisite song powerfully invokes nostalgia as listeners reminisce not just about this iconic Swift era, but also about life prior to the pandemic. Swift’s success knows no bounds, and the latest version of “All Too Well” proves that her fans will follow her down whatever path she takes. 

— Sejal Krishnan

Album of the Year

Photo of Japanese Breakfast

Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

Winner: Jubilee, Japanese Breakfast

During Japanese Breakfast’s UC Theatre show, Michelle Zauner stopped “Posing in Bondage” for a concert-goer in distress. Travis Scott’s Astroworld set was fresh, and Zauner had taken a moment earlier in the night to remind her audience she was there for them, not vice versa.

Surely neither moments were highlights of the show, but they carried a weight that’s tightly bound to Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee. The album is an evocation of not just joy, but the ways we interact with it. “Paprika,” the opening track, is an ebullient “thesis statement,” as Zauner has called it — gong and all. Consider “Projеcting your visions to strangers/ Who feel it, who listen to linger on еvery word” a declaration of what Zauner is reaching for. “It’s a rush.”

As for what she’s reaching through, melancholy and estrangement work their way into the album, echoing the reality that things get worse before they get better. While Jubilee doesn’t give itself over to despondency and rage, Zauner’s seeping and liminal record doesn’t shy away from the grief that punctuated her first two records. That juxtaposition of happiness and hurt makes for a record ringed by honesty. It’s an album of genuine emotion — the kind that lets you believe Zauner when she says she has your interests at heart, or one fit for a year defined by finding joy in hard places.

— Dominic Marziali

Runner-up: Red (Taylor’s Version), Taylor Swift

Few artists have emerged with the range and resilience of Taylor Swift. For more than a decade, she has dipped her brush into several genres, painting a multidimensional landscape of her journey through time. In Red (Taylor’s Version), she transports listeners to 2012 — the precipice of her transition from country to pop.

Swift may no longer be 22, but her old hits still glimmer under the allure of her matured vocals. Through poignant imagery and effortless poeticism, she beautifully captures the autumnal spirit of transience and change. From the vault, the songstress has uncovered both timeless bops such as “Message in a Bottle” and thoughtful meditations such as “Nothing New.” Perhaps most notably, she has gifted fans with a 10 minute rendition of “All Too Well,” solidifying the classic as a heartbreak anthem for the ages.

— Lauren Harvey

Best Music Video

Photo of Lil Nas X

Courtesy: YouTube

Winner: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Lil Nas X

If there is one memorable music video of 2021, it is indisputably Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The influence of the song was earth-shattering — the music video flooded pop culture globally and secured Lil Nas X’s reputation as a serious artist capable of creating truly meaningful music. “Montero” offers a triumphant, unapologetic celebration of queerness for LGBTQ+ folk everywhere and will likely go down in history as one of the most iconic music videos of all time. No other music video this year has received as polarizing of a reaction as “Montero,” something the brilliant Lil Nas X certainly intended.

The music video for “Montero,” like the equally powerful and addictive song, is absolutely gorgeous. Every scene, from Lil Nas being “deceived” by a serpent with a kiss in the Garden of Eden to him floating in the heavens before descending into hell down the world’s longest stripper pole, is stunning. But the most controversial and, ultimately, delightful aspect of the video is its revision of the queer story through the utilization of biblical imagery, exemplified by Lil Nas X giving Satan a lap dance before proudly taking Lucifer’s horns for himself. The video’s message is one that is clear and resounding — unabashed pride. Beautiful, innovative and necessary, prepare to rewatch “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” for years to come. Nothing deserves the title of Best Music Video of 2021 more.

— Joy Diamond

Runner-Up: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” Taylor Swift

The term “music video” does not suffice for Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well.” The video is best described as a short film, guiding viewers through the degradation of an emotionally taxing relationship.

As Swift’s soft vocals flood listeners’ ears, the film shrouds two lovers (Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien) in warm lighting, emphasizing the simultaneous romanticization of autumn and a blossoming relationship. This later contrasts the chill that forebodes the young couple’s relationship, made evident as the music temporarily fades to spotlight an intense conversation between the two. O’Brien and Sink offer profound, poignant performances: Though the film is rather brief, the two shine in the presentation of their failing relationship’s intricate complications.

The perfect soundtrack for fall afternoons with its embrace of an autumnal aesthetic, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” allows listeners to look back on heartbreak — and, given the emotional pull of its music video, fans are sure to remember every word to Swift’s 10-minute version all too well.

—Sarah Runyan

Best Collaboration

Photo of SZA and Doja Cat

Courtesy: YouTube

Winner: “Kiss Me More,” Doja Cat and SZA

The internet practically broke when SZA and Doja Cat released their high-energy single, “Kiss Me More.” The song dominated radio stations and social media platforms such as TikTok (sometimes annoyingly so) with its fun demeanor and catchy lyrics. Given the single’s popularity online, the two artists are set to inaugurate a new era of pop-stardom that relishes in quirky lyricism and internet culture. SZA and Doja Cat both have a unique presence and, in coming together, embrace exuberance that unites fans on the dance floor. 

“Kiss Me More” embodies feelings of freedom given its time of release. The track debuted prior to the first “hot girl vaccinated summer” and, in its fun and light-hearted lyrics, demonstrates how music continually provides a light at the end of the tunnel during dark times. Despite each artist’s unique sound, the duo’s vocals melt together in a complimentary way throughout the track. While it may sound a bit mind-numbing at times, the single captivates listeners with its brash lyrics such as “Fuckin’ with you feel like jail” and “He want lipstick, lip gloss, hickeys too.” All in good fun, “Kiss Me More,” will undeniably be remembered for retaining youthfulness and spirit during a time in which there was very little to go around.

— Kaitlin Clapinski

Runner-up: “Silk Chiffon,” Phoebe Bridgers and MUNA

Life’s so fun, life’s so fun when you’re listening to “Silk Chiffon.” Bright like a ruby September afternoon, the sapphic anthem sweetly embraces the final days of summer with the warmth of sunbeams. Immediately iconic, the bubblegum collaboration from electropop trio MUNA and alt-pop sweetheart Phoebe Bridgers limns a lighthearted rollerblading adventure in bright cherry lipstick.

Throughout the single, MUNA and Bridgers softly reminisce about a cheerful downtown scene, their vocals buoyant and blithe over sunny strumming guitar: “Silk chiffon/ That’s how it feels, oh, when she’s on me.” As the reigning queen of sad girl pop, it’s refreshing to hear Bridgers take part in such a rare, joyful song. Though she can’t help but sneak in an anxiety-ridden line (“I’m high and I’m feeling anxious/ Inside of the CVS”), the song remains overwhelmingly exultant — with every listen, “Silk Chiffon” is sure to bring a you’re-on-camera smile to your face.

— Taila Lee

Best International Artist 

Photo of BTS

Courtesy: Big Hit Music

Winner: BTS

Already an international phenomenon, K-pop superstars BTS need no introduction. The group’s ambition in experimenting with new music genres and visual styles also speaks to the brilliant talents of its seven members. Every time BTS releases new music, the members embrace a new look and sound and the whole world stops, looks and listens. 

This year alone, BTS has had two smash hits — the upbeat, disco-pop “Butter” and the dance-pop earworm “Permission to Dance”— which have swept over charts and radio stations across the globe, making the group a truly international pop icon. In addition to the group’s signature choreography and visuals, the seven members are also some of the most excellent singers, rappers and live performers alive today. 

Their 2021 output testifies to the members’ ability to adapt to musical compositions outside their typical influences, not solely grounded in K-pop. The group’s two latest singles, written in English and produced by the likes of British pop staples Ed Sheeran and Steve Mac, showcase the seven members remaining vocally impressive as they confidently step out of their comfort zone.

It’s no wonder their fans possess a collective name: Army. No matter where the group tours, its dedicated fans always offer their most passionate support and loudest cheers. The world can still anticipate more fantastic music and performances from BTS, the definitive best international artist this year.

— William Xu

Runner-up: TWICE

Although TWICE has already been prominent in the pop landscape in Korea for at least the past five years, the group has been dauntlessly following the trailblazing BTS in its ascent to international stardom. In 2021, the group released two albums and an EP with three hit singles between them — “Alcohol-Free,” “The Feels” and “Scientist.” The English single “The Feels” achieved international prestige, marking TWICE’s first successful landing on the American Billboard charts.

Unlike BTS, TWICE charms audiences with a softer, breezier style. The group’s nine members have a wide range, captivating listeners with a sound that at times feels like a vintage wine on their bossa-nova-infused summer jams (“Alcohol-Free”), switching to flashy disco-pop revelry with powerful vocals and infectious dance grooves at the snap of a finger (“The Feels”). An unlimited future awaits TWICE, as the group’s international presence has only just begun.

— William Xu

Best Breakout Artist 

Photo of Olivia Rodrigo

Courtesy: ABC

Winner: Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo knows she’s in the spotlight, but don’t call her a people pleaser. On the dusky violet cover of SOUR, she sticks her tongue out childishly, her face dotted with gaudy kindergarten stickers like a proud display of participation prizes. As she makes eye contact with the camera, her expression hardens into a half glare, half pout — she doesn’t want to be here, and she most certainly doesn’t want you here.

Still, SOUR invites listeners in: Rodrigo’s charm comes from her embrace of the disquiet, her willingness to share insecurities. Though acidity snakes through her debut album, it’s ultimately the 18-year-old’s intrinsic ability to soften such universal pain that makes her the reigning artist of 2021. Art can help heal; by translating pulpy heartache into a personal panacea, Rodrigo effectively evokes mass catharsis.

From the self-scathing candor of “Brutal” and the oh-so-Swiftian bridge of “Drivers License” to the bittersweet nostalgia of “Deja Vu,” Rodrigo might have had a broken ego and a broken heart, but now she’s busy breaking records. Up for seven Grammy Awards, not only is the captivating singer-songwriter the one to watch — she’s the one to beat.

People may have christened Rodrigo a Gen Z icon, but her effortless sincerity transcends generations. SOUR prospers as one of the most memorable debuts in years, piercing rosy teenage dreams to unveil the world’s stark emotional reality. As she intimately captures pangs of the past, Rodrigo dazzles as a visionary of the future.

— Taila Lee

Runner-up: Remi Wolf

In the highly saturated, fast-paced music industry, a unique voice is sometimes hard to find. Enter Remi Wolf, the bright, peppy musician from Los Angeles with a voice built for soul. The self-admitted “aqua girl with the rising Leo” (from her song “Sexy Villain”) catapulted into the spotlight after her eccentric track “Photo ID” went viral in 2020. 

Since then, she has been redefining the bedroom pop genre through her beautifully messy tracks, filled to the brim with distorted guitar and funk vocals. Her 2021 debut album, Juno, erupts in a kaleidoscope of colors, offering nothing but fun from beginning to end. Pop world beware: With a vision as creative as Wolf’s, her stardom is only just beginning.

— Afton Okwu

Artist of the Year

Photo of Michelle Zauner

Courtesy: David Cortez

Winner: Japanese Breakfast

Singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner’s recent musical endeavours diverge significantly from her previous discography, signalling not necessarily a maturation of her sound but a conspicuous tonal shift. If her sophomore record, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, was shoegaze-tinged and cosmic, her latest album, Jubilee, is definitively grounded. Moreover, it reverberates with a current of tenuous joy. Jubilee melds lustrous lyricism with sauntering beats and incandescent strings, engendering a record that is scaled up instrumentally and underpinned by seamless production.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, Zauner has had the opportunity to bring Jubilee to stages across the United States. Outfitted with a gong mallet and platform boots, Zauner’s stage presence conforms to the eclectic vibrance of her music. In March, she’ll embark on her European tour, poised to make her mark on an international audience, scattering breadcrumbs of joie de vivre in her wake.

In her luminously wrought and emotionally weighty memoir “Crying in H-Mart,” Zauner showcases her profound ability to forge affecting bonds with readers. Zauner sourced inspiration from her mother’s illness and death on her debut record Psychopomp, but in her memoir, she delves even deeper. She channels all the grief and nostalgia for people, places and food into a sparkling tribute to her mother, and she carves out a space for intimacy amid the whirlwind of the everyday.

— Emma Murphree

Runner-up: Taylor Swift

With the release of indie folk sister albums “Folklore” and “Evermore” in 2020, it seemed impossible that Taylor Swift could continue that momentum and popularity into 2021. But the re-release of “Fearless” and “Red,” in her battle with Big Machine Records for ownership of the songs on her first six albums, proved otherwise. Though differences from the original records are subtle, Swift’s matured vocals and the addition of new songs “from the vault” make for a tour de force that evokes the powerful nostalgia of change. 

Now, at age 31, lines such as “I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age” and “Lord, what will become of me/ Once I’ve lost my novelty” hit even closer to home. All in all, Swift and the “Taylor’s version” of her two albums allow the artist — and fans — to grapple with growing older and revisit the feeling of listening to them for the very first time.

— Asha Pruitt

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